What to Look for in your Teaching Contract

Hardial is an English language teacher, currently living and working in Hangzhou, China. Stay tuned for all her latest tips and adventures!

Figuring out your working arrangements in a foreign country doesn’t have to be tough. Without knowledge of China’s labour laws or customs, it can be hard to know if a working contract in front of you is fair, or if you are being taken for a ride. But fear not, having signed and negotiated quite a few teaching contracts in China, I have amassed quite a few tips for those who are starting the hunt.

Don’t accept the first offer

Many companies and schools in China will offer you a job quickly. While it is tempting to accept a good job on the spot, I recommend holding off from an immediate “Yes”. If it’s the first offer you have received, there is no harm in asking for a week to think it over before you give an answer. Ask other teachers in the community if it’s a fair offer. Websites like ESL Cafe always have localized groups who provide helpful advice.

You may use that time to do more interviews and see what other places will pay. See what kind of salary, bonuses, and benefits other contracts have that the first one you are offered doesn’t, and feel free to request similar additions to whichever you are considering signing. Almost every company will be willing to negotiate up from their initial offer; all you have to do is ask. There’s also the chance that you’ll find something better while shopping around!

Get your bonuses locked down!

There are a few things that will come standard on a year-long foreign teacher contract in China. One is a large bonus: whether it is a “signing bonus” paid at the very beginning, a “completion bonus” paid (you guessed it!) as soon as you finish out the term of your contract, or a “flight bonus” which, while ostensibly meant to help you visit your home country during the holidays or between contracts, can usually be used however you please.

You should expect this bonus to be a minimum of 1000 RMB, but can often be higher. It may be calculated according to your monthly salary, such as 1/2 of a month’s pay. If your contract lasts for a year or longer, you should insist on the inclusion of at least one of these bonuses.

Get a housing subsidy

Another standard point on foreigner contracts is a “housing allowance“. Most teachers are assumed to be new to China, and many do not yet have a permanent place to stay when they get their first job. Some schools will offer to provide you with an apartment, usually shared with another foreign teacher.

If you are interested, it’s a good idea to ask to see it before accepting: there’s a chance it might not be up to standard or could be missing basic necessities. If it is missing things, you should ask for them to be provided (like a hot plate, rice cooker, and/or kettle, which are the most standard appliances in China).

While living in the provided apartment will definitely be the least expensive option, most companies offer housing allowances in lieu of actual living arrangements. If you would prefer to choose your own roommates or look for an apartment on your own, this is the way to go.

The allowance is paid monthly, and you should check the wording in your contract to be sure that it is paid in addition to your base salary, and not vaguely included in it. Housing allowance in Hangzhou should be a minimum of 500 RMB, and can easily be double or triple that. If you are in a more expensive city like Shanghai, you should absolutely expect a higher amount.

Get your visa

Every foreign teacher in China is required to have a “Z” visa, which is a working visa (“M” would be a business visa, “L” tourist, and “X” student). While it is still extremely easy to get a teaching job with a non-working visa, it is technically prohibited by law, and could result in you having to leave the country. The good news is that most legitimate schools and training centres are able to provide Z visas for their employees, as long as the workers and the company meet certain government requirements. Companies must be specifically permitted to hire foreign English teachers. If you want to have a secure life in China for a long period of time, you should reject any job offers which will not handle your visa application for you.

Visa application costs should be at least partially covered in your contract, if not entirely. If you are a particularly skilled negotiator, you might even be able to have them cover any travel costs related to the visa application process: you might have to go to an Exit and Entry Administration Bureau in a nearby city, need to leave Mainland China (to Hong Kong, for example) and then return, or even be required to fly back to your home country and apply from there. The costs associated with acquiring a Chinese working visa can quickly add up. Be sure that your contract guarantees help in one form or another.

Applying from home

If you are still in your home country when you accept a job offer, you may expect some or all of your flight to China to be reimbursed. Some employers choose to provide a higher salary in lieu of a one time flight reimbursement. Many companies will also provide temporary residence for employees flying in from other countries, which may be in a company-owned apartment or even a hotel.

Be sure to take a look at holiday and sick day policies in your contract, and if there is none, work something out and have it included. It shouldn’t be difficult to get partial pay for sick days covered by a doctor’s note, and you should definitely know what to expect ahead of time when you find yourself with two weeks off in February for Chinese New Year. If your family wants you home for Christmas, you’d better sort it out before you sign, as December 25th (along with many other Western holidays) is a regular working day here.

Odd points

There will also be points in your contract which might seem odd to a Westerner. One addition to foreign worker contracts is a requirement to respect Chinese “morals”, as in, “don’t try to start a revolution or try to convert kids to your religion”. It’s pretty simple stuff, and is standard practice in China. And yes, if you are arrested or get in trouble with the law, you can bet your contract will be null and void.

Don’t be surprised if you come across job applications which ask for a photo of you, or even have home country requirements or requests. While such things are prohibited in countries like Canada, this is pretty standard out here. In favouring applicants from specific home countries (often the U.K., Australia, and the United States), they are sidestepping the fact that they are hoping you look like a stereotypical person from that country. If you aren’t from those countries or don’t have that preferred look, though, don’t worry. The most reputable and experienced schools and companies won’t treat your looks as a deciding factor.

For a fast-track to employment, MyTEFL online TEFL courses come with a FREE job placement service – helping you to find a teaching position in China and manage the application smoothly.

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